Ginninderry near Canberra has achieved a 6 Star Green Star – Communities rating, the highest rating available under the Green Building Council of Australia’s national Green Star – Communities rating tool.

The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) is committed to achieving zero net carbon from the built environment by 2050, if not sooner.

But to achieve this goal it is critical that planning systems be a help – not a hindrance – by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and by adapting to climate change.

The planning system

When planners assess development, they are shaping new additions to the built environment in the public interest.

Planners interpret development proposals through the filter of long-term strategy, plans and standards adopted by the community and their government. These rules are the “planning system”.

Australians ask a lot of our state and local government planning systems:

  • to maintain investment and ensure a steady supply of building stock;
  • to shape urban settlement in ways that work best with infrastructure;
  • to create places and buildings that are well designed and resilient; and
  • to avoid harm and ensure a positive contribution from the built environment.

Over time, coherent planning decisions should build the net worth of our cities, towns and regions.

The climate emergency

But the context for making planning decisions has changed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes we have less time to respond to reduce the impacts of climate change than the time we have available. This defines an emergency – and is the basis for moving more rapidly to reduce carbon emissions and improve resilience across all industry sectors.

We need climate-conscious planning systems that reflect the reality of a climate emergency and allow planners to make the best decisions possible.

In the absence of a national climate framework to allocate the most cost-effective pathways, each industry is setting its own response. For the built environment sector, there is action on building sustainability performance, construction codes and for urban design that responds to hazards and reduces the demand for energy. These initiatives will have long term benefits, but rapidly improving access to renewable energy – and responding to escalating hazards – are urgent needs, given the implications of carbon concentration trajectories on global temperature.

The goals of a “climate conscious” planning system

The task for a “climate conscious” planning system is clear. It must:

  • enable urgent initiatives that transform the energy use and access to renewables – and offsets;
  • set decision making pathways for the built environment and infrastructure investment to:
    • produce much less carbon;
    • adapt to changes in climate and hazards that are already locked in;
  • ensure that living and working conditions in buildings and places are fit for future conditions;
  • promote strategy to protect the values of the natural environment threatened by rapid climate change;
  • continue to ensure that sympathetic development and investment flows smoothly according to current and future needs; and
  • be able to adapt, listen, learn and build trust in the community.

A climate conscious planning system will have the “elements of a resilient system” in its rules and culture. It would grow the capacity of proponents, professionals and the community who work and engage with it. A climate conscious planning system would recognize that the single best pathway is not always the most resilient one. It would enable a diversity of scenarios to be considered and adaptable pathways to be pursued, it would ensure that decisions are made at the lowest capable level.

Figure 1: Characteristics of Resilient Systems (Kharazzi et al 2020)

A campaign to reform planning systems

As a body representing the planning profession, PIA has initiated a national campaign targeting every state and territory government to ensure that their planning systems enable effective climate action.

As an organization, we continues to advocate for national adoption of a zero net carbon commitment to meet our Paris Agreement obligations. We support a national climate change framework (Climate Bill) to allocate and account for abatement and adaptation tasks accordingly. This is an ongoing assignment.

However, in the meantime, planners must get their house in order. Australia’s federated system means each state and territory government sets the rules for land use strategy and development decision making, either centrally or via local government.

The different contexts make it impossible to set a single valid set of reforms, yet there are common challenges posed by climate change to which every planning system can respond. PIA’s Mitigation and Adaptation Discussion Papers help identify ten “asks” of a climate conscious planning system.

1. Legislated climate change goal in Planning Act – to provide the authority (and recognition) for the role of the planning system in responding to climate change. 2. Strategic planning guidance relevant to climate change – to ensure that strategy communicates the carbon reduction and adaption outcomes sought for places and how achieve them. 3. Assessment and conditions for buildings, infrastructure and other development regarding carbon mitigation and adaptation – to ensure decision making-criteria (& conditions) result in built form that is consistent with strategic outcomes. 4. Building performance indicators for carbon as a requirement for all buildings – to account for improved carbon performance in line with adopted metrics for building types and scales. 5. Landscape scale hazard guidance supported by strong digital tools – to plan above individual property scale to enable the trade-offs needed for settlement patterns to be able to adapt. 6. Resilience strategies at regional level – to ensure regional plans integrate the elements of resilient systems across multiple hazards and timescales, and apply Indigenous knowledge. 7. Streamlined pathways for renewable energy and carbon offsets – to facilitate decarbonisation of the energy grid – and opportunities for carbon offsets as industry transition occurs. 8. Carbon budgets at the precinct level – Carbon savings can be more effectively made at a precinct level through shared infrastructure/facilities, life cycle considerations and urban design. 9. Planning controls that promote urban vegetation and the retention of bushland – Vegetation cover and WSUD is critical for addressing urban heat and promoting wellbeing. 10. Urban design that promotes accessibility, walkability and sustainable built form outcomes – masterplanning and infrastructure that reduces the need to build, travel or consume energy.

The association is aware that these ten “asks” are not comprehensive – they represent a challenge for each jurisdiction to identify a suite of corresponding actions to make their planning systems more fit for purpose in a changing climate. We have asked working groups in each state and territory to respond with ten representative “fixes” (or actions) relevant to the reform of system.

Great ideas are already emerging, such as:

  • incorporating resilience strategies into Regional Plans;
  • integrating climate scenario planning into strategic plan decision making tools
  • resolving EIS guidelines for solar farms;
  • incorporating adaptive management pathways into development consent conditions;
  • requiring building performance metrics for carbon emissions and thermal comfort respond to expected climatic conditions beyond 2050;
  • clarifying rules and definitions for how precinct carbon performance would be measured; and
  • considering a “climate filter” on the evaluation of the performance of infrastructure.

Some of these ideas are clear actions for “no regret” reforms – others expose how much we don’t know – and require work to build industry capacity. We are confident that the profession can progress the ‘no regret’ actions – while advocating for the means to solve the tough problems.

Getting past policy freeze

The complexity and scale of the climate change challenge can be overwhelming. Political gridlock and the rapidly changing nature of the emergency can make frustrate action. But planners know how to plan. We know the weaknesses of our planning systems and we can make headway on mitigation and adaptation by improving our tools as practitioners.

A concerted effort to fix key elements of each planning system around Australia would have a monumental impact on the performance of the built environment. Let’s harness our power and do our part in responding to the climate emergency.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Planning approvals authorities need to also enable the fast tracking of recycling projects.All too often these new industries are being labelled as “toxic waste dumps” and like descriptions- reactions that will stymie the take-up of these projects. The irony is that some of the opponents of these recycling projects describe themselves as being climate change conscious- clearly not the case.